The Bears worked hard to try and improve their offense after a poor 2019 season.
From a lackluster passing attack to a disappointing ground game to an offensive line that regressed after a solid 2018 campaign, seemingly everything that could have gone wrong for the Bears did go wrong last year, save for an impressive season by Allen Robinson.
Chicago saw that plenty of expectations failed to come to fruition last year, and they followed that up by making sweeping changes on the offensive side of the ball. Gone were offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, among other firings. Former Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was brought in to help Matt Nagy try and fix their offense. John DeFilippo, who was nearly hired as the Bears’ head coach in 2018, was brought on as the new quarterbacks coach. Dave Ragone was promoted from that position to become the passing game coordinator, a new position within their coaching staff.
Speed was also added to the wide receiver position. Taylor Gabriel was ultimately let go to create cap space, but veteran Ted Ginn Jr. and rookie Darnell Mooney were brought in to add a dangerous dynamic to the Bears’ group of wide outs.
However, aside from bringing Nick Foles in to compete for the starting quarterback job with Mitchell Trubisky, arguably the most notable thing the Bears did to upgrade their offense was attack the tight end position. It has become so notable, in fact, that fans of opposing teams have made numerous jokes about the seemingly endless tight ends the team has on the roster (they’re currently at nine, by the way). Trey Burton was released after a disappointing two-year tenure with the team, and in his place came Jimmy Graham, Demetrius Harris, and second-round pick Cole Kmet.
The Bears’ struggles at tight end last year are well documented. Injuries to the likes of Adam Shaheen and the aforementioned Burton greatly affected their play at the position and saw them giving significant playing time to players who otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day in other NFL offenses. Needless to say, that resulted in historically bad production at the position:
The #Bears were historically bad at tight end in 2019. Literally.— Jacob Infante (@jacobinfante24) May 21, 2020
Last year was the first time in franchise history that they failed to have a tight end reach 100 yards in a season. They started using tight ends in their offense in 1960.
The Bears finished in the top half of the league in using 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) in 2018, tying for the 13th-best percentage in the league with a 17 percent rate. That dropped down significantly last season, as their 11 percentage rate of plays in 12 personnel was the third-lowest percentage in the league.
It’s no secret that Andy Reid’s offense relies heavily on tight ends, and that sentiment rings true through the other members of his coaching tree. Out of the top six teams in the league in using 12 personnel packages, three of them have ties to Reid. The Eagles, whose head coach is Reid disciple Doug Pederson, led the NFL by running in 12 personnel set on a whopping 52 percent of offensive plays. Reid’s Chiefs themselves finished fifth in the league, while Frank Reich, who coached under Pederson and therefore has ties to the Reid coaching tree, led the Colts to the sixth-highest rate.
Granted, all three of those coaches had much better tight ends than Nagy had to work with in 2019, so it would naturally make sense for them to run that grouping more often. While it’s unlikely that Graham or Kmet will play as well as the likes of Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert or maybe even Jack Doyle or Eric Ebron, the talent the Bears will bring onto the field at tight end will be significantly better than what they brought out last season.
Tight ends are meant to serve as somewhat of a security blanket for a quarterback, and Mitchell Trubisky very clearly missed that last year. While it’s no guarantee Chicago will run 12 personnel packages as often as other Reid-oriented offenses, their aggressiveness in attacking a major need should indicate they have big plays for the tight end position going forward.
While Chicago’s tight ends as a whole were, to be nice, disappointing in 2019, J.P. Holtz did show some flashes as a midseason addition, particularly in an H-back role. He’s far from a lock to make the roster with all of the competition he’ll face at the tight end position, but he could very realistically have a role in their offense this year.
The Bears didn’t run out of the I-formation a significant amount last year, but there were some flashes of success to come out of that formation that saw fans clamoring for it for much of the season. That success was particularly apparent against the Chargers back in October, where they ran nine plays out of the I-formation for a total of 77 yards, as the Chicago Sun-Times’ Jason Lieser pointed out.
The formation won’t work to that extent against every team, as teams who tend to stack the box and run out of a base formation more often than most teams could do a better job. However, against teams like the Chargers, who are notorious for running heavily out of a dime formation, a power-run approach could be a smart strategy.
ESPN’s Louis Riddick recently appeared on the Waddle and Silvy Show at ESPN 1000 and discussed the Bears’ running game, indicating that they could lean towards heavier formations.
“They are going to be a very resourceful, much more physical running football team this year, and that’s going to start with Juan Castillo…[t]hey made a lot of smart moves as far as trying to correct the things they didn’t do well last year by bringing certain people in here who have familiarity with one another on the coaching staff.”
While Castillo, the Bears’ new offensive line coach, does tend to favor a zone-blocking scheme over one that prioritizes gap blocking and man schemes—therefore making him a good fit for Nagy’s West Coast-oriented scheme—Riddick’s comments could imply that the Bears may look towards pairing more tight ends on the field and, quite possibly, see a slight uptick in more power packages like the I-formation.
This may just be overanalyzing an insider’s quote, but given the Bears’ personnel moves this offseason, as well as Riddick’s reliability as a source, it could very well come into fruition.
If the Bears focus more on heavy formations, that could result in an increase in 22 packages, as well as a decrease in 10 packages. Chicago utilized two running backs on the field at once more often than most teams, even though Tarik Cohen was often used as a receiver in those packages. Naturally, prioritizing two tight end sets would see an increase in not just 12 personnel, but likely 22 personnel too, given the Bears’ penchant for using Cohen in their offense. It would be hard not to increase their usage of 22 packages, as they ran out of it just six times all year, giving them a bottom-five percentage for that grouping.
Having more reliable tight ends could be more helpful to Cohen, too. With a lack of a reliable tight end to throw to as a security blanket last year, Trubisky relied heavily on Cohen as a check-down option. Teams seemed to pick up on that, as his yards-per-touch average in 2019 was the lowest of his career. The Bears placed ninth in the NFL in 21 groupings with a 11 percentage rate, but their 41 percent success rate was the fifth-worst in the league. If you exclude teams who ran out of 21 personnel fewer than 20 times, Chicago had the third-worst rate in the league.
Cohen himself admitted via Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times that he didn’t have as much of a desire to keep his body in shape last year. A more serious approach to the season, as well as improved personnel around him, could help make Cohen, and two-back sets as a whole, more effective.
The Bears did only run out of a 10 personnel package 6 percent of the time in 2019, but that rate still tied for the fourth-highest rate in the league, as it accounted for 65 of their plays all year. Four teams didn’t use the 10 package at all in 2019, and among them were the Chiefs and the Eagles: two teams with Andy Reid ties. Don’t expect the Bears to abandon spread formations entirely, as they were the second-most successful team out of teams who ran out of that package at least 20 times, but expect them to use it far less often. It could also provide for even more efficiency, too, since relying more on heavy groupings like 12 and 22 packages could tighten up opposing defenses and make it easier for the Bears to spread the field against them.
In the end, the Bears are still expected to run a base offense that sees them prioritize 11 personnel, as they ran out of that grouping 63 percent of the time last year. That’s the case for most teams, though, as all but two teams—the Vikings and Eagles—used 11 personnel more than any other grouping in 2019. However, after a disappointing season and an offseason that put an emphasis on adding talent at the tight end position, expect there to be a fundamental change in how the Bears play football in 2020.